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Another Voice: School breakfast expansion can help fill the local hunger gap

By Kelly Ann Kowalski and Joel Berg

Despite the record highs in the stock market, Erie County still has a serious poverty and hunger problem. Near a third of country residents, and nearly half of its children, live below the meager federal poverty line. Fully 124,000 people in Erie County struggle against hunger, according to Feeding America.

Statewide in New York, more than 2.5 million people, and more than 700,000 children, live in homes that can’t always afford enough food. That means that one in six children in the state face the threat of hunger.

Child hunger not only is a moral blot on our society and devastates the physical and emotional well-being of children, it makes it nearly impossible for children to effectively learn. To be schooled, you must be fueled. To be well-read, you must be well-fed.

Yet, according to the Food Research and Action Center, even though many schools in the state provide the theoretical opportunity for low-income children to obtain federal-subsidized school breakfasts, only slightly more than half of the children in the state who receive subsidized school lunches actually eat school breakfasts.

Why do so few children who need school breakfasts in New York get them? Breakfast is often served in the cafeteria before the school day starts. Transportation schedules and social stigma, among other factors, prevent kids from participating – often leaving them starting the school day too hungry to learn.

Breakfast After the Bell – where breakfast is offered after the official start of the school day – is proven to be one of the best practices to overcome barriers school breakfast participation. Schools across New York that have implemented a Breakfast After the Bell program have experienced significant increases in the number of students who eat school breakfast. Beyond improving school breakfast participation, Breakfast After the Bell has also been linked to stronger academic performance, improved student behavior and reduced absenteeism among students.

On top of all that, the vast majority of the costs for these breakfasts are paid for by the federal government.

For all those reasons, we strongly support Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposal to require schools statewide with more than 70 percent free and reduced price (F/RP) meal eligible students to offer Breakfast After the Bell, while providing some limited state seed money to support schools as they implement the program.

The governor’s proposal would be very beneficial to children across the state and we are grateful to him for his progressive leadership in advancing this solution. However, we recommend the Legislature improve upon the proposal in two ways: by requiring all schools at the 70 percent F/RP rate to offer breakfast free of charge to all students; and by lowering the threshold for requiring a Breakfast After the Bell model in schools from 70 percent to 60 percent. These simple changes would allow the proposal to reach a total of nearly 150,000 students statewide and would generate approximately $53 million in federal reimbursements.

These efforts alone won’t solve the problem, because families will still need sufficient food during nights, weekends and vacations. That’s why our society needs to create more jobs, raise wages and ensure that other federal nutrition programs, such as SNAP (food stamps), remain strong. Still, providing breakfasts to every child on every school day will take a huge bite out of child hunger.

New York State leads the nation on so many fronts, from growing the nation’s most delicious apples to the producing the country’s greatest theatrical performances. The time is long overdue for New York to also lead the nation in ending child hunger.

Kelly Ann Kowalski is program director of Food for All in Buffalo. Joel Berg is CEO of Hunger Free America.

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